Modern Love (2018)

Modern Love tells the story of a young woman Mika, who is struggling with the mysterious disappearance of her boyfriend, Teru. When a new planet appears in the solar system its presence presages several inexplicable phenomenon. Mika comes into contact with her own doppelganger, and then a third lookalike Mika. These are revealed to be parallel universe versions of Mika, though the circumstances of each are slightly difference. For one, she has just met and begun dating Teru, for the other Teru has committed suicide and she has largely come to terms with his death. The three then become trapped in a time-loop and must work together to understand how to break out of this eternally recurring day. This leads Mika to uncover the mysterious Agartha, a name she had previously been introduced to by an odd customer at the travel agency where she works.

Writer and director Takuya Fukushima has crafted a compelling drama with science-fiction elements never detracting from the central themes of love and loss. The idea of parallel worlds is an interesting way to explore Mika’s psychological struggles by externalising her confusion and anxieties. The mysteries established are enough to hold your attention throughout and the sense that the world is falling apart and anything could happen makes for an exciting story. The side characters are less strong and add little to the film other than basic exposition. The direction is good and in particular the use of locations such as the empty bar and the later scenes in the rustic European setting for Agartha. Azusa Inamura gives a great performance as Mika (and the two alternate Mikas). We sense her loss and confusion as well as her various relationships with Teru. Takuro Takahashi’s Teru is also given time to shine, though less so than Mika and the two have a good chemistry.

Modern Love is about a journey of self-discovery and coming to terms with loss. Mikas psyche is fractured between her memories of Teru and her present situation of dealing with his loss. This is demonstrated in the three versions of herself that converge in the same world. Likewise the idea of being stuck in a time-loop will be familiar to those suffering with depression as it seems that she cannot move on but is forced to relive the same memories while not progressing with her own life. Particularly interesting is the concept of Agartha, which is an esoteric idea of a land that exists at the centre of a hollow earth. In this film Agartha is used both as a sort of heaven or afterlife, as well as symbolising an exploration of the human soul or psyche. In her journey to find this place and uncover its secret, Mika is in fact delving into her own mind to attempt to unravel the confused feelings of loss and try to discover a path back to her own life.

Pumpkin and Mayonnaise (2017)

Pumpkin and Mayonnaise is a tense relationship drama about trust and infidelity with social commentary. Tsuchida (Asami Usuda) starts work at a hostess club to support her boyfriend Seiichi (Taiga) in his aspiration as a songwriter. After a client offers her a significant amount of money to accompany him to a hotel, she goes with him. The man asks her to undress and change into highschool swimsuit and increasing demands with the promise of money if she accepts. When Seiichi discovers the money he realises her job is something of this nature and the two argue, eventually leading to their relationship becoming unsustainable. Tsuchida meets and old admirer Hagio (Joe Odagiri) at a club and with Seiichi ignoring her she falls into a relationship with him. The film follows Tsuchida as she tries to navigate a seemingly impossible course of doing what is right and her emotions.

Asami Usuda is captivating as Tsuchida, garnering sympathy with a determined, fragile, confused character. While her actions may be unforgivable, they are always understandable in context. Likewise Taiga and Joe Odagiri give good performances. The story is based on a manga by Kiriko Nananan, with a screenplay by writer-director Masanori Tominaga. It is well-written with believable dialogue and dilemmas for everyone involved. Tomanaga employs some interesting techniques with regards the direction, with care paid to locations, and character positions within the scene. An example of this is the close-up of Tsuchida and Hagio together that creates a sense of claustrophobia, inescapable, comfortable, and brings you into Tsuchida’s world. Another is the scene of Tsuchida collapsing through fatigue in her apartment while we see an hourglass and a stack of money on the worksurface. This sort of visual film-making helps keep the film entertaining. The sound design also utilises silences well to bring home the weight of the drama. The film is only around ninety minutes which leaves you wanting more as it ends, in contrast to many other films that outstay their welcome. Almost every scene adds something and moves the story forward.

A film about breaking up that captures the heart-rending choices that people make both for themselves or loved ones. The characters seem to be following a pre-determined course, with their actions largely controlled by the pressures of duty or lack of money. Tsuchida’s journey is almost an archetypal tragedy, in that each step along the path is to a large extent predetermined by the initial choice. The finale of the film offers a measure of catharsis and the characters are left in a better position than they began, but as with life itself it is a tough journey to this realisation.

The Lies She Loved (2018)

After a chance encounter at a railway station, Yukari Kawahara (Masami Nagasawa) falls in love with a young doctor Kippei Koide (Issei Takahashi). However, following his sudden collapse and being taken to hospital in a coma, she is informed by the police that both his name and past is false. His place of work also has no record of him. She hires a detective (Daigo) to investigate who this man was whom she has spent several years in a relationship with. When they discover that instead of working he was visiting a cafe and working on writing a book they use this text to uncover the true identity and past of the man.

The film is directed by Kazuhito Nakae, from a script by Nakae and Nozomi Kondo. The acting is good with humorous moments that do not undercut the genuine emotional scenes. There is a subplot about the detective and his relationship with his ex-wife and daughter that plays well in supporting the themes without distracting too much from the main plot. The enjoyment of the film is conditional in part on how intrigued you are by the central mystery or how satisfied you are by the eventual revelation. This investigation takes up the majority of the film, which leaves less time for the more interesting aspect of Yukari’s reaction to the discovery that he is not who he said he was.

The central idea of the film, a man who has lied about his entire past to his partner, is fascinating and offers an interesting examination of what someone would do in that situation. Themes of deciet and forgiveness are well presented in both plot and subplot. Throughout Yukari remains convinced that her boyfriend is a good person and seems relatively unaffected by the revelation that he has lied about his past. In contrast the detective’s story, in which he mistrusts his wife after an affair, offers a little more in the way of emotional substance. An entertaining film that could have delved a little deeper into the motivations of the characters.

River’s Edge (2018)

A high-school drama that deals with several serious issues. Haruna (Fumi Nikaido) is in a relationship with Kannonzaki (Shuhei Uesugi), who is cheating on her with her friend. Fellow classmate Yamada (Ryo Yoshizawa), who is being bullied by Kannonzaki, becomes friends with Haruna who feels sorry for him. Yamada is gay and therefore something of a social outcast amongst his peers. He takes Haruna to see his ‘treasure’, the skeleton of a corpse he discovered in an overgrown field beside a river. Another classmate (Sumire), who works as model and suffers from bulimia, is also aware of this body. The story follows each of these characters as their lives intersect and impact on each other through a series of increasingly dark and dangerous situations.

The film makes much in its opening scenes of the looming industrial site that belches forth smoke and discharges filth into the river. The setting highlights the complex, dirty nature of teenage life, being a metaphor for the corruption of society on the pure children who are born into the world. Director Isao Yukisada makes good use of cuts, for example between sex and scenes of vomiting or violence, to show the confused blend of emotions that characterise this period of life. There are for example highly comic transitions between a sex scene and the consumption of bananas or sausages, which function to underscore a message about the interconnectedness of these characters who at first seem to socialise only in a shallow sense. The bulimic subplot likewise offers a human counterpoint to the idea of the factory that both consumes and then vomits back pollutants. The acting is occasionally hit and miss, but Fumi Nikaido and Ryo Yoshizawa give fantastic performances. The ensemble cast are all given fairly hefty roles, with their own nuances and dilemmas to face. There is a little overacting, but with such a collection of actors and scenes it is easy to move past them. It is a little overlong, the second half becoming directionless, seeming more like a series of vignettes rather than a single narrative. This is easy to understand as the film is based on a manga by Kyoko Okazaki and is perhaps attempting to fit too many stories into a single cohesive narrative. The film often seems like it is struggling to fit in all of the stories it wants to tell, something that is far easier in the long form, episodic nature of a manga. The film is rarely dull however, being a kaleidoscope of teen angst and genuinely shocking scenes. All the various subplots are resolved to varying degrees of satisfaction.

The film discusses death, most prominently in the characters’ reactions to the corpse and in a latter shocking scene with Haruna. This corpse is symbolic of the characters confronting death itself, with the associated nihilism and overwhelming realisation that there is really no goal at the end of life, simply a series of tragedies. Bulimia, infidelity, anger, jealousy, homosexuality, and bullying are all shown to be part of life and the audience is left to find some morality amongst a morass of sin and suffering. There is an unspoken distance between many characters, who are unable to relate to one another, despite being in desperate need of someone to help them. They are isolate, impulsive, nothing is neatly resolved. It is a fizzing, unstable collage of teenage emotions showing the darker side of human nature. River’s Edge is a solid drama that deals with a number of important themes and leaves you speculating on the characters actions long after it is over.

Your Name (2016)

Mitsuha is a highschool girl living in a remote rural community. A conscientious girl, she takes part in the villages cultural event as a shrine-maiden along with her younger sister and grandmother. But Mitsuha dreams of moving to Tokyo away from the monotony of rural life. Taki is a highschool boy living in Tokyo, the very life that Mitsuha dreams of and the two find themselves inexplicably living each other’s lives. At first they believe that this second life is simply a dream that they struggle to remember on waking, but as the pair’s friends explain to them their bizarre behaviour they begin to understand that what is happening is real. Without knowing each other they have somehow become bound together. As the film progresses there are several twists and turns that take the story in unexpected directions as a disaster threatens Mitsuha’s hometown.

Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimeters per Second) has once again directed a stunningly beautiful animation. The world of the film, both rural and urban, is recreated with exceptional skill and an eye for incidental details that help bring it to life. Many of the scenes are works of art, the lakes and mountains of Mitsuha’s home are exquisitely depicted. Shinkai certainly has developed a recognizable style of his own and that is present here, in particular the use of light, with dazzling sunbeams, starlight, dawn and dusk captured brilliantly, though occasionally it becomes excessive and a more restrained approach may have worked better. You can feel the mountain air and the bustle of the city and it is a world that you could happily step right into. RADWIMPS provide several songs for the film and this seems to indicate a step to a more commercial direction for Shinkai. The piano score more reminiscent of earlier works is still here, but there are a number of up-tempo montage sequences, a focus on comedy, and more traditional relationships developed in the subplots that make this a more easily accessible work. The story does a good job of keeping you guessing. Unlike other body-swap movies where the plot is explained in the beginning, the film keeps its secrets until it is ready to reveal them. In the end everything is wrapped up more neatly than some might like, but the way it builds to that moment is so full of emotion that it is forgivable. Both Mitsuha and Taki have entertaining subplots in their own stories and characters that are enjoyable to watch.

As with Shinkai’s earlier works (Voices of a Distant Star, The Place Promised in our Early Days, 5 Centimeters per Second), “Your Name” deals with a theme of love and a couple sundered by an impossible distance. The characters are always reaching for something that is just out of grasp. In particular when their attempts to call one another fail to connect. The film also contemplates the nature of fate and the inter-connectedness of humanity. Doors opening and closing throughout the film offer a perfect visual metaphor for the choices that guide our lives. The film largely shies away from discussing the transgender themes implied in its premise. These are largely played for laughs with the characters becoming used to each other’s bodies or acting out of character. Nevertheless, that aspect of the film is somewhat unavoidable given the story. There is so much to enjoy about the film, from the incredible animation, deep themes, humour, and a thrilling story that it is definitely worthy of the praise it has garnered.

The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (2017)

This film follows the lives of two lonely singletons in the capital city trying to find something to live for. Mika is working as a nurse in the day and a barmaid at a seedy club at night. Having left her father and sister in the countryside she finds herself in the position of many young people, surrounded by crowds of people but with a debilitating sense of hollowness at the heart of things. Shinji is similarly a distressed young man, working as a temporary labourer in construction. He is a nervous character, battling financial worries and with a collection of fellow workers that typify the sorts of troubles present in many modern societies, health and economic problems, and relationship issues.

The screenplay by director Yuya Ishii is based on collection of poetry by Taihi Saihate. The poetic influence is apparent from the very beginning with characters talking in a melancholy tone about various observations on city life. The title gives away the film’s contemplative, philosophical nature, and it is far from being a typical boy-meets-girl romance. The two characters bump into one another at intervals and there are questions here about how much stock you can put in the chance encounters that guide our lives. There are sub-plots involving Shinji’s co-workers, one of whom is suffering health issues and another who is a foreign worker. Some of the most effective scenes see the characters in a sort of daze as life passes them by. Our two protagonists struggle to relate to others and the whole film has a depressive quality only lightened by the moments of beauty that appear amidst the chaos of Tokyo. The cinematography is impressive employing a number of techniques to emphasise the characters loneliness as well as great use of colour throughout. The central performances of Shizuka Ishibashi and Sosuke Ikematsu are perfectly understated and get across the personalities of the characters.

The film’s central themes will be familiar to anyone who has seen this sort of drama involving young people in a big city. The depression and isolation felt living in a crowd of strangers, compounded by economic uncertainty, relationship worries and an all pervasive nihilism. The film tackles many themes and shows Tokyo in a real and personal way as well as its impact on the people living there. The blend of poetry, philosophy, interesting characters and incredible cinematography makes for a fantastic cinematic experience.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004)

Following an unknown conflict, Hokkaido (now renamed Ezo) has been separated from the rest of Japan. Ezo is now under control of “the Union”, while Japan itself is controlled by the United States. High school friends Hiroki and Takuya are intrigued by a large tower on Hokkaido, that can be seen even as far south as Tokyo. They begin work on a plane that will fly them to the tower, to see what it is. They decide to tell their high school classmate Sayuri about their project, taking her to see the plane. While there, Sayuri looks out towards the tower, seeing a vision of it exploding. The film then shifts to three years later. Sayuri has not been seen for three years, Takuya is working for a government program intending to establish the proposition that there are multiple-universes, one of which is being brought into view by the tower on Ezo. Meanwhile Hiroki has fallen into a depression due to Sayuri’s disappearance.

Writer and director Makoto Shinkai has crafted a beautiful film. Although the film does involve a war and talk about multiple-dimensions, the focus is kept largely on the relationships of the three main characters, with everything else serving to move their story forward, or work as a metaphor for their hopes and desires. The animation is truly stunning, with the artists having a great eye for detail, and a real love of the quiet countryside of northern Honshu. The pacing of each scene is judged perfectly, cutting between characters and small details in the environment. There are many short scenes fading to black, which help to cover a lot of time and ground in a relatively short run-time. With minimal dialogue you have a fully realised world. The music matches the animation, transcendently beautiful compositions for piano and violin heightening each emotion.

The film is a simple love story, though using various brilliant conceits to further emphasise what the characters are feeling. The tower acts as a symbol of the characters dreams, promises (with the boys promising Sayuri that they will take her there someday), and of the unknown future. It is ever-present, though always out of reach, representing whatever it is that the young characters are hoping for. I would recommend this as a beautiful love story, with fantastic animation and score. Although it is overly-sentimental in places, it does have a huge emotional impact.

April Story (1998)

Nireno Uzuki travels from Hokkaido to Tokyo to begin university. A lonely, confusing time for the young girl as she moves into her apartment, makes new friends, and learns to live by herself. Towards the end of the film we see her reason for travelling to a university so far from home. A boy who she is in love with is also attending that university.

The film is short and largely without major incidence. The director uses a lot of handheld shots and the acting is naturalistic, often seeming more like a documentary than a film. The score is similarly understated soft piano music, but the whole is a pleasant experience. It captures the feeling of being alone in a new place. Each of the scenes has something to say about the experrience of living alone, fears, dangers, melancholy, but also the joy.

A film more about feeling than action. Not a traditional love story, in fact we only find out about her romantic interest late in the film, but definitely worth a watch.

Cyborg She (2008)

When hapless loner Jiro is met by a beautiful young woman on his birthday he cannot believe his luck. After a night of hijinks, the mysterious stranger tells him that she has travelled from the future and must now leave. A year later, the same woman walks back into his life and he discovers that she is a cyborg, sent back by his future self to protect him.

The premise is about as silly as they come, but the film-makers manage to weave an emotional story between the more outrageous comedy. As you might expect there are plenty of slapstick moments involving the robot, such as her malfunctioning after drinking alcohol, or slamming various men into walls when they try to touch her. Haruka Ayase gives a great central performance as the cyborg, perfectly capturing the robotic motions while managing to exude a degree of charm and humour. Along with Keisuke Koide, who plays the bumbling geek Jiro, they are a good comic partnership, with his ineptitude matched by her cold confidence and attempts to learn how to be a human. There are moments that go beyond ridiculous such as the cyborg running at impossible speeds, and as usual the time-travel paradoxes are best not to think about too hard. I was most surprised by the films tender moments, especially the scene where Jiro is taken back to his childhood. The film almost stops while we explore this past world and the music and direction create a poignant vignette of childhood memories. The main issue here is that the tone swings wildly from slapstick to sentimental, occasionally such a drastic change as to feel like a separate film. Writer and director Kwak Jae-yong  has cobbled together something bizarre and abstract, heavily influenced by science-fiction and romantic comedies that have gone before, that nevertheless is strangely enchanting. There are scenes reminiscent of Terminator and Star Wars, and the entire plot is a sort of mix-tape of greatest hits moments from other love stories. Some great special effects work, stunts and larger scale action sequences, make this an enjoyable watch. But throughout there is a clear focus on characters and story that is heartfelt.

This film surprised me with its quality as from the title (Japanese: My Girlfriend is a Cyborg) and premise, you might expect a cheap knockabout comedy, with gags about her not fitting in. While this is partly true, there are some genuinely amusing scenes and a real warmth to what they are attempting here. I feel as though the film was misnamed because at its heart it is a film about the past, rediscovering lost memories, love and loneliness, and a whole collection of things that aren’t quite captured in the comedy title. A good romantic comedy with science-fiction elements that is unexpectedly impactful in emotional content.

Norwegian Wood (2010)

At University, Watanabe begins a tumultuous relationship with Naoko, whose ex-, and Watanabe’s friend, unexpectedly committed suicide while the three were at high-school. After Naoko withdraws to a spiritual retreat in the mountains, suffering some unknown psychological affliction, Watanabe embarks, haltingly, on another relationship with fellow student Midori. A poignant tale which touches on both the terror of pre-destination and the oft-times confused relationship between romantic and physical love.

The film depicts Watanabe’s journey to adulthood thoughtfully, lingering over a word or a look in silence. The use of metaphor is striking, with weather, from rushing winds to frozen winters, giving scenes a power beyond words. The acting too is passionate and sincere.

Capturing the feeling of helplessness, that time is moving unerringly forward and our fate’s dependence on others, that love and sex are sometimes incomparable forces, the film exudes a tragic beauty, being at once a warning to, and celebration of adolescence.

Based on a novel by Haruki Murakami.